The rape victims prosecuted for "false" rape allegations

Gail Sherwood was raped three times by a stalker, forced to retract her allegations and sentenced to two years in prison. Lisa Longstaff argues that her case is one example of a police witch-hunt against women wrongly accused of lying about rape that is undermining 35 years of campaigning for justice

Lisa Longstaff
16 December 2013

A Women Against Rape demonstration against the imprisonment of rape victims for "false" allegations. Credit: Demotix

The UK police do not take rape seriously. Women who have been saying this for years have been proved right time and again, as serial attackers Jimmy Savile, John Worboys, the Oxford and Rochdale rapists and many others repeatedly got away with it, despite numerous victims reporting to the police.

The police claim that these 'mistakes' are all in the past, and that ‘lessons have been learnt’. Until the next case hits the headlines. On 19 November 2013 police whistleblowers PC James Patrick, former Met Detective Chief Superintendent Peter Barron, and former West Midlands Chief Inspector Dr Rodger Patrick gave evidence to a Commons Committee. They said that "the Met had effectively been under-recording rape and serious sexual offences by between 22% and 25%"; that victims were being pressed to withdraw from prosecutions and that rapes were being wrongly recorded as ‘no-crime’ in 80% of cases.

But there are even worse ways in which the police neglect rape: they investigate the victim instead of her rapist, accusing her of lying and wasting police time, something I have seen repeatedly in my casework with Women Against Rape. They pressure her to retract, and even prosecute her for perverting the course of justice.

Now, a witch-hunt against women wrongly accused of lying is undermining 35 years of campaigning for justice. Anti-rape activists have succeeded in establishing that every woman has the right to say no to unwanted sex, regardless of her relationship with her attacker. But the conviction rate for reported rape hasn't increased. What's more, women are being discouraged from coming forward for fear of being disbelieved or even being prosecuted themselves.

Women Against Rape have been campaigning to clear the name of several rape victims wrongly convicted and imprisoned for “false” rape allegations. Among them are Gail Sherwood and Layla Ibrahim, who have always maintained their innocence. Sherwood was raped three times by a stalker, forced to retract her allegations and sentenced to two years in prison. Ibrahim was attacked by two strangers on her way home, accused of self-inflicting her injuries and sentenced to three years – she was pregnant at the time.

These cases are not unique. We have been working with Professor Lisa Avalos for over a year on collaborative research comparing how women accused of lying about rape are treated in the US and the UK. Despite the two countries having different legal systems, the US findings shine a light on the handling of cases in the UK, with poor investigations being found to be the central obstacle for both.

In both countries, false reports are extremely rare. The Chief Crown Prosecutor for London, Alison Saunders, stated in 2012 that "studies have indicated that only 2% of all reported rapes are false, which is slightly less than false reporting in all other crimes". More pertinently, false rape allegations are dwarfed by the prevalence of unpunished sexual violence. The International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) in the US claims that only 3% of all rapists serve prison terms for their crimes. In the UK, the conviction rate for rape is a mere 6.5%.

According to the IACP, the most significant barrier to successful investigations and prosecutions is "the powerful and pervasive myth that most sexual assault allegations are false". In order to combat the problem it has designed guidelines which attempt to ensure proper investigation.

The guidelines require police to set aside myths about rape and to approach victims with empathy and an open mind, stating: “Focus should remain on the suspect, not on the victim’s character, behaviour or credibility.” They instruct police to conduct a thorough investigation, saying that pressuring a victim to retract is “poor practice”. The guidelines add that police should not become sceptical of the victim because of post-assault behaviour, such as inconsistencies which may reflect the trauma they suffered.

It is well-established that traumatised victims often can’t recount events in chronological order, and can suffer memory gaps. Yet this kind of normal behaviour is often used to discredit rape victims.

The US research, launched in the UK in September, describes the cases of three women prosecuted for “false” reports of rape. "Patty" (Wisconsin, 1997), Sara Reedy (Pennsylvania, 2004) and DM (Washington state, 2008) were able to prove their innocence only after their rapists were caught raping again.

IACP guidelines were not followed in any of these cases. In each, police decided early the woman had lied, disregarded physical evidence of the rape and investigated her rather than her rapist. They also put pressure on each woman to retract. DM and Patty did, and the police then used the retraction to charge them with lying.

Yet when DM's rapist, Marc O'Leary, was caught, photos of his many victims – including DM – were found on his phone. He is now in prison for multiple rapes, at least three committed after DM reported. Reedy's rapist, Wilbur Brown, carried out at least two attacks after Reedy. When caught, he confessed to raping her, and is currently in prison for at least 11 sexual assaults. Reedy was awarded $1.5m compensation, but Detective Frank Evanson, who threw her in jail, is still serving in the Pennsylvania Police Department. DNA evidence finally linked convicted rapist Joseph Bong to Patty’s rape, but her police accuser, Detective Tom Woodmansee, is still serving in Wisconsin. 

How many other rape victims have been prosecuted because of incomplete and biased police investigations?

The UK police have similar guidelines, published in 2011, although each force has its own version. The guidelines are supposed to protect women and children, but the prosecutions have continued. There were 35 prosecutions of women for lying about rape in a 17 month period, including teenagers, victims who were attacked as children, those who have suffered domestic violence, and women with mental health difficulties. These are the very vulnerable and traumatised people who, according to the CPS guidelines, it is not in the public interest to send to jail. Yet in a manner similar to the US, the guidelines are often disregarded. (Women Against Rape have the guidelines in hard copy, though they have been removed from the internet.)

Earlier this year, the Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC) criticised the Sapphire Unit, the Metropolitan Police's specialist team for investigating rape and other serious sexual violence, in Southwark, for pressing rape victims to withdraw their allegations. During the investigation of a man who had raped then killed his victim and her children, the IPCC discovered that the police had pressured the woman to retract and that this was standard operating procedure for rape cases. The Guardian revealed a similar policy in five other London boroughs.

We don’t know how many women forced to retract were then prosecuted for “lying”, nor how many men raped again as a result of this policy. 

Another woman was jailed after reporting her husband, despite police and CPS knowing that he had raped her. She retracted her claim under pressure from the man and his family, and the authorities then prosecuted her. After a public outcry her sentence was quashed but not her conviction – she, not her husband, has the criminal record. She has applied to the European Court of Human Rights to overturn her conviction.

One teenager who came to Women Against Rape for help faced prosecution because forensic tests did not corroborate what she said happened. Her formal complaint resulted in reinvestigation by another force – new tests found semen where the first police team claimed there was none; the charges against her were withdrawn, the rape prosecution was reinstated, and the rapist was jailed for five years. Had she not persisted, she could have gone to jail for ‘lying’. Another young woman put on trial for a so-called false report of rape had her case thrown out by the judge, who expressed shock to one of the women's family members at the lack of evidence against her. She hadn’t even reported rape, only being drugged to the point where she could not remember what had happened or whether she had been assaulted.

The men who raped Gail Sherwood and Layla Ibrahim have yet to be identified. Did sexism and racism play a part in the way their cases were investigated and the CPS decision to prosecute them?

It is encouraging that police whistleblowers like James Patrick, Peter Barron and Rodger Patrick are finally coming forward. We need them: to confirm the testimonies of rape survivors, to confront corruption and illegality within the force, and to help us hold the police accountable to women and children who report rape.



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